By Justin Sink and Mike Lillis - 01/16/13 04:44 PM EST
President Obama called Wednesday for Congress to approve new bans on military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips in response to a string of deadly mass shootings.
"If there is even one thing we can do to reduce this violence, if even one life can be saved, we have an obligation to try," Obama said.
Obama asked Congress to reinstate and strengthen the assault weapons ban and to impose a 10-round limit on ammunition magazines. He also called on Congress to require criminal background checks for all gun sales.
"Weapons designed for the theater of war have no place in a movie theater," Obama said. “A majority of Americans agree with us on this."
The president also asked Congress to approve a law against so-called “straw purchasing” of guns, toughen gun trafficking laws, and authorize new funding for gun violence research, mental health efforts, and a program that would place mental health counselors and police officers in schools.
In total, the White House estimates that the president's requests would total "in the neighborhood" of $500 million in the coming fiscal year.
The extensive proposals do not include any calls for restrictions on video games or violent films, which some have argued are a contributing factor, although the White House did designate some federal dollars for the study of violence in media.
Much of Obama’s plan is expected to meet resistance on Capitol Hill — from both parties.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) suggested this week that he won't bring an assault weapons ban to the floor.
A spokesman for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said that the appropriate committees in the House would review the president's recommendations, and that the Speaker's office would "take a look at" legislation that came from the Senate.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said his committee would begin holding hearings on gun proposals by Jan. 30.
The Vermont Democrat singled out background checks, mental health policies and anti-trafficking measures as areas of particular interest.
“The questions we face about our national gun policy extend beyond the tragic issues of mass murder. They extend to how we care for those with mental illness, how we manage the exposure of children to violence in popular media and simple matters of gun safety,” Leahy said at Georgetown University Law Center.
“As President Obama's made clear, no single step can end this kind of violence,” he added. “But the fact that we cannot do everything that could help should not paralyze us from doing anything that can help.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) argued last week that Congress doesn't have the time to take on a controversial issue like gun reform before it addresses the fiscal deadlines facing lawmakers over the next three months.
“The biggest problem we have at the moment is spending and debt,” McConnell told ABC's "This Week" program. “That's going to dominate the Congress between now and the end of March. None of these issues, I think, will have the kind of priority that spending and debt are going to have over the next two or three months.”
One question both sides have is how much muscle the White House will put into the fight.
On Wednesday, administration officials insisted the president was serious.
“I don't think there’s anything that anyone in this administration has said in the past month that would indicate we're looking to duck a tough political fight on this," a senior administration official said. "The president is backing up his strong words."
And Obama said Wednesday that "while reducing gun violence is a complicated challenge, protecting our children from harm shouldn't be a divisive one."
But Obama also said "the only way we can change is if the American people demand it," encouraging "voices in those areas and those congressional districts where the tradition of gun ownership is strong" to lobby their representatives.
More than a month after the Newtown shootings, the president said the tragedy should move lawmakers to "the right thing" on gun violence.
He spoke about one of Newtown's victims, Grace, a seven-year old whom he said "dreamed of becoming a painter."
Last month, after Obama visited with the families, Obama said that Grace's father gave him one of her paintings and Obama said he hung it in my private study, near the Oval Office.
"Every time I look at that painting, I think about Grace and I think about the life that she lived and the life that lay ahead of her, and most of all, I think about how when it comes to protecting the most vulnerable among us, we must act now for Grace, for the 25 other innocent children and devoted educators who had so much left to give," Obama said, before Grace's parents who sat in the audience in the auditorium at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.
"Let's do the right thing," he said. "Let's do the right thing for them and this country that we love so much."
Vice President Biden, who was charged with holding meetings on gun violence, said he had never seen the conscience of the nation so shaken. He vowed that the events of Newtown will invoke change.
"Some will happen immediately, some will take some time," he said.
Executive actions planned by Obama include ordering the Centers for Disease control to resume research into gun violence despite a congressional ban preventing the agency from producing work that would advocate or promote gun control. Obama is also asking Congress for $10 million toward those research efforts.
The controversy over government funding of gun-related research has been around since the early 1990s, when a study — funded in part by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — found that guns kept in homes were much more likely to harm members of the household than to be used in self defense.
Pressured by the gun lobby, Congress later withheld funding from the CDC with the additional stipulation that the agency could not use federal money to advocate for gun control.
The White House said Wednesday that it will take unilateral steps to relaunch that research, arguing that "public health research on gun violence is not advocacy."
"The President is directing the CDC and other research agencies to conduct research into the causes and prevention of gun violence, and the CDC is announcing that they will begin this research," reads a White House fact sheet.
Obama is also calling on Congress to seat a permanent director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), a position that's been empty for roughly six years.
In November 2010, the president tapped Andrew Traver, a long-time ATF agent from Chicago, to head the agency, but Senate Republicans — spurred by opposition from the NRA — blocked Democrats from voting on the nomination.
Obama on Wednesday said he'll take another stab, announcing that he will soon nominate Todd Jones, the ATF's current acting director, to fill the seat permanently. A former U.S. prosecutor under both the Clinton and Obama administrations, Jones took over the embattled agency in the summer of 2011, at the height of the congressional investigation into the botched "Fast and Furious" gunrunning program.
Other executive actions include directing federal agencies to contribute information to the federal background check system, improving incentives for states to contribute, and reallocating funding for schools to hire police and mental health professionals. The administration will also launch a gun violence prevention campaign.
The president was joined at the event by top-level Cabinet secretaries, including Attorney General Eric Holder and Secs. Ray LaHood, Janet Napolitano, Arne Duncan, Ken Salazar, and Kathleen Sebelius. Congressional attendees included Rep. Ron Barber (D-Ariz.), who was injured by gunfire in the attempted assassination of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), along with Sen. Patrick Leahy (I-Vt.), and Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D-Ct.).
Napolitano, who participated in talks with the Biden group, said her Homeland Security department would be expanding efforts "to prevent future mass casualty shootings, improve preparedness, and to strengthen security and resilience in schools and other potential targets."
The agency is planning to focus its work with state and local governments on techniques of prevention, protection, response, education, and research/evaluation" to mass casualty shootings, according to Napolitano.
— Updated at 12:28 p.m.
— Amie Parnes and Jordy Yager contributed